Traditionally, earning a college degree has been cause for celebration. For most, the achievement signaled the onset of adulthood and offered the promise of a career that would start in mere months, if not weeks. But in today's job market, undergraduates who leave school armed only with a degree may not be so fortunate. In 2000, more than 1.2 million people received bachelor's degrees in the United States. This year, that number is expected to rise 30 percent to more than 1.6 million, according to estimates by the National Center for Education Statistics. That hike has far outpaced the country's increase in population over the past decade, tripling the Census Bureau's projected rate of population growth over the same period. "With the increased number of students, if I'm an employer or a medical school or business school, finding a student who has a good GPA isn't particularly tough anymore," says Dan Gomez-Palacio, assistant director of career services at Westminster College in Missouri. "So, what is going to separate you from your peers?"
The answer: internships. University officials and employers almost universally maintain that partaking in an internship—or several, which sets a student apart from his or her peers even more—before graduation is integral to finding meaningful employment in today's seemingly impenetrable job market. More than ever, schools across the country are pushing students of all majors toward internships, and several have even added them to their graduation requirements. "These internships give these students an edge that they would not have otherwise," says Patricia Cormier, president of Longwood University in Virginia, which requires an internship of all graduates. "It always amazes me that higher education didn't think of this sooner. For me it's a no-brainer. If you're going to position your students well, you've got to give them this exposure before they graduate."
Longwood, with an enrollment of roughly 4,800, saw 74 percent of their 2008 graduating class attain jobs within six months of graduation, despite the fact that students were thrust into one of the worst job markets on record. Two years ago, officials at Eastern Connecticut State University decided to institute a pre-professional experience requirement for students. Rhona Free, vice president of academic affairs at Eastern Connecticut, says the school wants not only to educate students but to prepare them for their working lives after school through experience-based learning. "[Students] worry, 'If I'm an English major, can I get a job?' " she says. "We want them to know that before they leave here, they will have been in a setting that's like one they'll go to work in."
While smaller schools are able to ensure that their students can meet the internship requirement by forming partnerships with local companies and working one-on-one with students to facilitate their hunt for an internship, the task is more daunting for larger schools. Finding an employer base near a large university that can support the influx of thousands of interns is a daunting, if not impossible, task. For that reason, many large schools have shied away from requiring internships but still take pains to impart the importance of work experience to their students. Plus, some programs within larger institutions do require internships. It's a common practice in fields where prior work experience is integral to the hiring process, like business and journalism/communications.
The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Villanova University in Pennsylvania does not require internships, but students are E-mailed a weekly list of internship openings and are constantly reminded of their importance. The college's website even proclaims: "INTERNSHIPS . . . don't leave Villanova without one!" Such marketing efforts have paid off. The school has seen a 30 percent jump in enrollment in internships in the past three years alone. Such efforts are lauded by large employers that hire a bulk of their interns. Accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers, for instance, draws more than 70 percent of its new hires from its internship program. "Schools that focus in on accommodating internships as part of their course curriculum position their students very well for future employment," says Holly Paul, national recruiting leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers.